May 23, 2013 3:14:40 PM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Taylor Stafford didn't have time to be nervous.
A single, a bunt single, and a walk in the top of the first inning Sunday took care of any butterflies the New Hope High School junior might have had to start game two of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State title series against Hernando.
With the bases loaded and a potential big inning facing him, Stafford knew he had to make some big pitches.
"I was just thinking I had to keep my composure and I had to get us out of the inning with as little damage as possible," Stafford said.
Stafford made his pitches so well that he and the Trojans escaped the top of the first inning unscathed.
"We started to roll from there and I got more comfortable," said Stafford, who scattered seven hits in a complete-game effort to lead New Hope to a 5-0 victory that helped it secure the North State crown.
New Hope (25-8) will take on defending state champion Pascagoula (22-13) in game one of the Class 5A State title series at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
New Hope will ride the momentum of a six-game winning streak and try to win its first state championship since 2003. Pascagoula defeated Hernando in three games last season to win its fifth state title.
Last season, Hernando broke out to a 4-0 lead against Stafford and New Hope en route to a 6-5 victory in game three to reach the title series. This time, Stafford, a junior left-hander wanted to make amends for his performance. He nearly didn't get a chance, as Townsend Myers singled, Scott Pala bunted for a single, and Stuart Chick walked to load the bases with no outs.
"Last year, I had a rough outing," Stafford said. "I didn't have much on my fastball and I struggled a little bit and they scored on me early. Our team got behind early and it kept us from going to the state championship, so I wanted to come out here and prove myself to them and get our team to state."
With Trey Freeman, who homered Thursday in New Hope's victory in game one, up next, Stafford made the first pitch he needed and coaxed Freeman to pop up to first baseman Wells Davis in foul territory. Stafford struck out left-handed hitting Timothy Rowe on a curveball for the second out. Second baseman Parker Earhart's throw to first base on Caleb Goff's ground ball was just in time to retire the side.
"I knew I had to keep it down and try to get a ground ball, and I got a couple of them," Stafford said of ground balls. "I just had to keep the line drive out of play as much as possible."
Stafford was a last-minute decision to start on the mound, according to coach Lee Boyd. Senior Landon Boyd typically has followed J.C. Redden in series this season, but Stafford made the most of the pivotal assignment by walking two and striking out seven in his second complete game of the postseason. He also went the distance against Yazoo City.
"Those things have happened to us quite often, and for Taylor to battle out of that was huge," Boyd said. "If they get a double in the gap and it is 3-0 them and the game completely changes. It seems like in the playoffs we have been getting that hit and been working our way out of those jams. That was a big moment in the game. That was a game-changing moment. Although it was the top of the first, it puts a lot more pressure on our guys offensively and maybe we don't get a three-spot there in the bottom half of the inning if they get a big hit there, so you have to give Taylor all of the credit in the world."
Stafford said he threw a "great" bullpen before the game. He said a lot of times his bullpens aren't that good and that they really don't affect him during the game. On Sunday, he said he had good command of all of his pitches warming up and took that control to the mound.
Stafford's teammates made him feel even more comfortable in the bottom half of the inning. Landon Boyd hit a two-run home run to left-center field and Rooke Coleman's single scored pinch runner Josh Stillman to make it 3-0.
Hernando coach David Lara said his team expected to face Boyd, but he said seeing Stafford didn't mess his team up.
"The big thing is we just wouldn't consistently go oppo(site field) with him," Lara said. "He lived on the outside. He would show us something inside, but he lived on the outside. I tell our kids all of the time that good hitters have got to go away and hit oppo, and that is not something we did tonight. I think they tried. We just weren't doing."
New Hope senior catcher Tee Payne, who singled in the bottom of the first to help provide New Hope's third run, said the depth of the Trojans' pitching staff gives them multiple No. 1s. He said it doesn't matter who pitches because the Trojans have faith in everyone, whether it is Redden, Boyd, Stafford, or Will Golsan.
"He didn't throw his changeup much, but his four-seam and two-seam (fastballs) and his curveball were working, and he was spotting all of his pitches," Payne said. "They really couldn't get any timing on anything because they had so much movement. His slider and curveball were snapping, so he had all of his pitches working good."
Stafford credited New Hope High pitching coach Matt West for helping him to improve off-speed stuff and to add more pitches to his arsenal. That repertoire allowed him to work out of jams with double plays in the fourth and fifth innings. In addition to the twin killings, center fielder Trae Collins and Golsan, the shortstop, teamed on a relay throw to Boyd at third to erase Chick, who tried to stretch a one-out double in the right-center field gap.
"His pitch count was up in the first inning," Boyd said. "I didn't even ask Matt West because I didn't even want to know. We were going to go with him as long as we can. In the sixth inning, I could see him gassin' a little bit. He's a warrior. He told me, 'Coach I am good. I am good.' As hot and humid as it was, and he closes for us a lot of times, so it was a concern in the sixth and seventh innings. We had Golsan throwing in the bullpen, so his stamina was a concern.
"That was probably our best defensive effort in a big-time situation. You take those double plays away and his pitch count goes even higher than it was and then we have to make a change. The defense played great behind him."
Payne said Stafford's ability to hit his spots kept Hernando (16-14) off balance. He said not allowing any runs in the first helped calm his nerves and made him believe Stafford could be a bulldog and get the Trojans back to the state championship series.
"It was a big inning for us," Payne said of the first. "That was a rally-killer for them. It set the tone, and Landon coming up in the bottom half of the inning with the big home run. We just knew it was our time.
"(Stafford) just pounded the strike zone. The first guy singled and then there was the bunt and a walk. All of the pressure was on him, but after he got the first guy to pop up, he just buckled down and said, 'Let's go.' Every number I put down he just threw right to my mitt. He pitched phenomenal tonight."
Stafford's performance was even more impressive when you consider he spent most of this season as a relief pitcher. Prior to playing for the New Hope High varsity team, Stafford was a starting pitcher. He said his last complete game before the one he threw against Yazoo City was in his eighth-grade year at Tupelo.
Sunday's gem likely tops the last two by a small margin.
"It is amazing," Stafford said. "We are a close group. We have been playing tournament ball together growing up. Last year, we fell just short, so we felt like we had a good shot to do that again this year, and we got there."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.